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Poet’s New Work Chronicles a Couple’s Life

August 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Another in our occasional series on poets and poetry.

Tonight, Alberto Rios, a professor of English at Arizona State University and author of nine volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. His new book of poetry is called “The Theater of Night.”

ALBERTO RIOS, Poet and Author: My name is Alberto Rios, and I grew up in the early 1950s in a little border town called Nogales, Arizona, on the border between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

My father was born in Mexico, and I never looked like my father. My mother was born in England, and I’ve always looked a lot more like my mother. But you can imagine that I was growing up between worlds, between cultures, between languages.

I grew up in-between, and I think that’s defined what I do now. It certainly gave me plenty to write about as a writer generally, but as a poet very specifically. It showed me how to look at everything in more than one way.

In us this day, on the occasion of the inauguration of Janet Napolitano as the governor of the state of Arizona.

We are in a border time, the border between countries, between centuries, the border between yesterday and tomorrow, what we have been and what we are going to be. We are a state of many languages, many cultures. We must translate this into a state with many ideas.

Let us choose from the best from this treasury of dreams. Let us create a future we would want to speak in any language. We should not try to predict the future; instead, let us make it, and let us make it our own.

“The Theater of Night” is the imagined life story of my great-grandparents. The broader parts of this book are clear in that they’re just about love. They’re about the idiosyncrasies of personal interaction. And they’re different for everybody. But when we recognize them, we know that they’re ours, as well. They’re about aging and loss; they don’t both live forever.

“The Chair She Sits In.”

I’ve heard this thing where, when someone dies, people close up all the holes around the house, the keyholes, the chimney, the windows, even the mouths of the animals, the dogs and the pigs. It’s so the soul won’t be confused or tempted.

It’s so, when the soul comes out of the body it’s been in but that doesn’t work anymore, it won’t simply go into another one and try to make itself at home, pretending as if nothing happened. There’s no mystery; it’s too much work to move on.

It isn’t anybody’s fault. A soul is like any of us. It gets used to things, especially after a long life: the way I sit in my living room chair, the indentation I have put in it now after so many years. That’s how I understand it’s my chair, and I know how to sit in it.

KARLA ELLING, Press Printer: The paper is going to slide across the cylinder and pick up the ink.

ALBERTO RIOS: I’ve collaborated with many artists over the years doing these poems of public purpose. Karla Elling, for example, who’s a fine-letter press printer, she helped me actually physicalize a project that’s called “Words over Water” around Tempe Town Lake. It’s 600 granite tiles, six miles long.

I chose a turn-of-the-century Spanish form called a gregoria (ph). It’s a small form, and it’s very much in the Spanish literature tradition. And it combines high seriousness with humor in an a-ha moment, a finger-snap moment, an epiphany.

“To visit the river quickly, cut an onion. Nobody owns water. Drink some and try to keep it. Water rules kings.”

What I hope people take away from the “Words over Water” project is the single moment that makes a difference; that is to say that they get that epiphany, they get that one connection, they get that thing that will have mattered to them in the moment and which they will not forget.